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Can Grief Ever Be Good?

Grief is usually not good, it’s devastating. I know all too well. I’ve experienced divorce, the loss of the love of my life, and the death of loved ones but my worst loss was my grandfather’s death when I was ten.

 I grew up in a strangely dysfunctional home. As an only child, my father returned from WW II section 8. Dad was a rage-aholic. My blind mother gave up her eyesight so I could be born. 

 The one bright spot was my grandfather. I was the son he never had, he the father which my own couldn’t be. He stopped on way to work most days, taught me baseball, took me to Cleveland Indians games, and even got me autographed balls. Vacations with him were really special. I was away from the craziness at home; I was with my grandfather who adored me.

 Then one frigid January morning we heard a knock on the door. The family Dr. came in. At first, it didn’t register with either my mother or me. We had just celebrated Christmas, my favorite time of year, filled with warm fuzzy memories of Lionel trains, special toys, delicious food and time with Grandpa. The doctor said Grandpa was dead, ripped away from us by a massive heart attack in his sleep.

 My grandfather was so well liked people came from all over the US to his funeral, even from far away Los Angeles. It was the biggest funeral ever in the most impressive funeral home in my hometown of Shaker Heights, a city filled with prominent residents. 

 I sleep walked thru the funeral, too numb to think, to talk, or even to understand what was happening around me. Some people said God needed Grandpa more than us. How could that possibly be true?

 Without Grandpa around, my life went downhill fast. By the time I was 12, I was on a fast track of self destruction, drinking, smoking, wild girls, and eventually even dope. I almost killed four people in a car accident the first time I got stoned. But I always wondered what my life would be like if Grandpa hadn’t died.

 When I was 25 and the woman I loved more than life itself gave back my engagement ring, I was numb with pain. My agony grew so stark, so unbearable I almost took my own life. My features were so distorted by the grief, I saw people I knew well and they didn’t recognize me

 M. Scott Peck said “Life is difficult, but once we accept the fact that life is difficult, life becomes far less difficult.” The question isn’t if we will experience grief and pain it’s how we will deal with it. How did I deal with mine? For many years I didn’t; I couldn’t; I didn’t know how. Do you?

 Twenty years after Grandpa died, I went to a personal growth retreat. By then, I realized the limitations of both religion and psychology to help me. I had become a pastor and a husband and I felt I was failing miserably at both. I had built a huge wall around my life, an expensive one. It cost me many failures in love relationships, with friendships and in my pastoral work.

 When we’re afraid to love, nothing works as it should. You see, “love never fails”, but sometimes the converse is also true. Withholding love can cause devastating failures. It sometimes causes more hurt than anything else.

 At that retreat, people cared enough to really listen until they heard me and I even heard myself. They refrained from offering simplistic solutions, you know, the kind of advice that’s often true but seldom helpful. I finally saw my personal walls for what they were: a vain attempt to keep myself from ever hurting again. I realized that they only hurt us worse in the long run, for the same walls that keep out pain, also keep out pleasure … and joy … and even the love we so desperately need. They also keep us from reaching beyond our pain to touch others. They lock us in a lonely emotional solitary confinement: our own an inner prison of personal pain.

 At that retreat, I made the old Negro spiritual my prayer: “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho … ‘til the walls come tumbling down.” President Reagan’s challenge, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”, has a scary ring to it. I prayed instead that the mortar would gently crumble. And indeed, when I was finally ready, it did exactly that.

 Two years later, I attended a men’s’ retreat, where men could level with each other and share our uniquely masculine struggles; a place where we could admit our sin and failures, expose our pain, and care for one another.

 After I shared my struggles, a large bald man hugged me. In size and appearance, he felt like Grandpa when I was a boy. I felt like I was giving Grandpa the goodbye hug he never got. The dam broke as I sobbed out the last remaining tears I needed to shed from my grandfather’s death. 

 Truly, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” but where do we mourn until the bad grief turns good? How do we cope with losses that touch the deepest part of our soul? How do we find that ever-elusive comfort He promised?

 For me the answer has been retreats; retreats where we can openly discuss the unmentionable, connect with those who will listen, because they too need to be heard; where we can shout and scream and even curse if we need to as we grapple with the questions no one can answer and the pain that neither medicine nor people can heal.

 Retreats have changed my life. And to the degree that it has become worth anything, they have made it that way, with God’s help. You see, the physician sets the break, but only God can heal the hurt. And that pertains as much to the broken heart as it does to the broken bone … maybe more so, because so few meta-physicians know how to heal the broken heart. Thank God this was Jesus’ mission. He knew we’d experience devastating losses so He made sure there is healing balm in our Gilead. 

 Have you unfinished your grief over the loss of a loved one? This too shall pass away. We’ve all heard that, and it’s true. But the sad fact remains that time doesn’t actually heal all wounds; in fact it doesn’t heal any. God can do that. 

 Frederic Lawrence Knowles said, “Joy is a partnership, Grief weeps alone; Many guests had Cana, Gethsemane had one.” This reminds me of that great hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus… All our griefs and pain to bear…What a privilege to carry … Every one God in prayer.”

 There’s no easy answer for grief; no quick fixes, no pills or potions that take away the pain without also taking away our life. But there’s a God who sent his Son to experience grief and loss like none of us ever have, all so He can heal our pain. But to receive that, we also need ‘God with skin’; others who care, who hurt, who heal. That’s what a great retreat can offer. That’s where I see real healing happening today. If you need healing, don’t let anything keep you from it. Make this truly the first day of the rest of your life.


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